28 June 2007

Luxury Condos

Riding on the T this morning, I noticed another passenger reading the Metro. For those of you who might be reading from somewhere other than the Boston area, the Metro is a free weekday paper handed out at subway stations and street corners that is read looked at by people who don't want to spend their commute just staring into space, but also don't want to think too hard in the morning. The only reason I noticed was because it appeared this person was reading it upside down. I suppose this isn't a radically unusual thing to observe in the spectrum of T rider behavior, but still.

Later I saw another copy of the paper on an adjacent seat and picked it up. It turns out that on Thursdays the Metro runs a home section (as do many other papers), and for reasons likely known only to them, they print this section upside-down from the rest of the paper. A four-page insert in the center of the paper would seem to be a much more logical and professional choice, but I'm not part of the Metro brain trust, so what do I know?

Anyway, that's not really the point of this story. There was an ad on the back of the upside-down section for a new condo development in Everett, which is adjacent to our end of Medford. I hadn't heard of it, so when I got to work I typed in the web address; turns out it's not too far from our house (there was no map link on the site; I had to map the address myself to find its exact location, which is definitely an infraction of Web Site Usability 101). They're pitching it as essentially (I'm paraphrasing) "city-style luxury living at lower prices and without city hassles."

[CORRECTION: I was wrong. There is a link that says "click here to preview directions from your location," and if you click it (which I admit I didn't do this morning), it gives you the Google Maps page I linked to above. But it's not obvious that's what's going to happen, because when you see something about directions, you think that it's going to ask for your starting location first, because that's what the web has conditioned us to expect. So I'm still calling them out for a lack of clarity, but I didn't want to get a truckload of email from people about it. When I'm wrong, I believe in admitting it.]

Oh, and did I mention it's called "Britney Place"? Is this an intended association with you-know-who? Are the people who would want to live there the sort of people who would also want to name their daughters after the recently-unhinged celeb? Or is it just poor spelling? Neither is advantageous, in my humble (and admittedly biased) opinion.

The site was fairly generic and a little short on things like pictures, but there were a couple of things I found interesting. On the right side of the "Community" page, there are three photos. One is of a guy walking a couple of dogs, one is of the Boston skyline (presumably a view from somewhere in the complex), and the third is of... a row of brick town houses on what looks a lot like Beacon Hill. I'm not sure how those things go together, but I'm thinking the developers want to plant the idea that living at Britney Place will make you feel as much a part of a community as if you lived on Beacon Hill. Okayyyy, sure, if it makes you happy.

On that same page, if you happened to follow that link, there is some general
info about the area and its convenience to Boston locations. If you didn't feel like following the link, I copied this part for your benefit: "4 minutes by car to Boston’s North End neighborhood of restaurants, cafes, shops." Read that again. Four minutes. Four minutes. If you live around here, you have a pretty good idea of how realistic that claim is (or isn't). And it's not even a sort-of-round number like five minutes.

Now remember, I said it was close to my house. I can absolutely guarantee you that it is completely impossible to drive from Britney Place to the North End in four minutes, even under totally ideal road conditions--no other traffic on the roads, all green lights--and I don't even drive. I know people who LIVE in the North End who can't get to the North End in four minutes. What flavor crack are these marketing copywriters smoking? I'm fairly confident that you could drive from Britney Place to the Gateway Plaza (Target, Costco, Home Depot, lots of other fun stuff) on Route 16 in four minutes, but I guess that wouldn't have seemed as comparably glamorous a selling point as the North End.

So, where does that leave us? Looking for some sort of a way to wrap this up, I guess. Britney Place's marketing people have, um, taken a few liberties with the materials promoting their development. Not exactly news, I guess, but it makes me wonder what other things they may have fudged or glossed over. Like, walls cost extra?

Heat Treatment

Summer has arrived here in the Northeast, no question. It's been in the mid-90's and quite humid the past few days, but we'll be having much more pleasant, comfortable weather by the weekend (so they say). When I was growing up in Rhode Island, summer highs above the mid-80's were rare, and while it was frequently humid, we pretty much never got this relentless, spongy, soppy, Gulf Coast-caliber humidity, so as far as I'm concerned, global warming is real.

Even so, we are somewhat selfish consumers of natural resources, which is to say we really like our air conditioning. Really, really like it. Sure, I got by with only a fan for years, but you couldn't buy an air conditioner for $99 back in 1986, or I probably would have. I enjoy summer when I can walk around outside without melting into a messy puddle, but when the humidity cranks up, I'm heading indoors and turning on my AC.

After the first few summers at our old place, we got a small unit for the bedroom so we could get some sleep.
The rest of the house sweltered around the clock, because there was nothing around it but concrete and asphalt (no trees), and the sun just beat down on the place all day. The thing about summer in the city is that it's not just the heat that interferes with your sleep, but also the noise, and in our case the streetlight directly outside the bedroom window; the AC helped with all of these.

After several years we decided to add a second unit in the living room, but we had a technical issue: there was a wide opening into the dining room, and another wide opening from the dining room into the kitchen. We didn't care to spend a ton of money on a big honking unit that might or might not cool the entire first floor of the house effectively, so we opted to close off the living room opening with thick curtains, which looked really classy, and weren't even very good at constraining the cool air.

When we moved to our new apartment last year, the layout was much more sensible, and I figured out that with a third unit we could have a reasonable approximation of central air, with all the rooms at the same temperature. The only catch was that two of the spaces were a good bit larger than the units we had were intended to cool, so I ended up buying two new units last summer (and giving one of the older ones to a friend).

The new ACs are very efficient and have an energy-saver setting that is kind of like extra-low
. I confess that we leave one unit on that setting during the day for the dog's benefit, but we close off the other rooms and leave those units off until we get home.

When we are home, we don't set the ACs any lower than 70 degrees, and we also don't turn the things on as soon as it gets warm and leave them running continuously until the end of September, like some of our neighbors seem to do. (I noticed that the people next door left theirs in their windows all winter, which is just lazy, and it also ends up wasting a lot of heat.) As soon as it cools down we'll open the windows and enjoy the seasonable air, but with one eye on the weather report to see when it's going to get sticky again.

Shopping Satisfaction

Even though we were only in New York for a couple of days, we did manage to get in some shopping, which to me is always one of the key reasons for going to New York. There's always a store or two that doesn't exist anywhere else, or has just come to the US from Europe or Asia and, naturally, chosen New York for its first US location.

This time around, the store I really wanted to check out was Uniqlo. They are a Japanese-based clothing company, and their flagship store on Broadway in SoHo opened in November. It's a multilevel place that is the largest in the entire chain at over 35,000 square feet (according to their web site). The store's design is somewhat reminiscent of an Apple store, with white walls, light wood flooring, and wide, open staircases, and is entirely in keeping with a Japanese aesthetic. The shelves climb to the ceiling and are stacked with column after column of neatly folded clothing arranged by color (quite beautiful to behold for someone like me).

The merchandising reminds me a little of H&M, but Uniqlo's styles are far less trendy and much more classic casual (perfect for me), and the clothing is certainly of better quality than anything H&M could hope to produce. Also, the few times I've stepped inside an H&M, the men's clothing felt like an afterthought, whereas men and women are given equal treatment at Uniqlo, which made it a worthwhile trip for both me and the Mrs, who picked up half a dozen assorted tops.

Unlike much of retailing these days, the store's prices are reasonable across the board; $39.50 seemed to be the magic price point for jeans and dress shirts, but this isn't the time of year when I'm likely to shop for those items. Well, that's not entirely true; I've been looking for a pair of off-white jeans since last summer, but no one seems to have them this year either. I did indeed find them at Uniqlo, and on sale for only $19.50, but they only came in one cut, and it was way too low-waisted and snug for my middle-aged midsection (and dignity).

I did come away with a pair of Bermuda-length madras shorts, a pair of bright blue boxers with pink flamingos on them, and three polo shirts. The polos were offered in about 30 colors and two fits, far more than a typical store would carry. I couldn't find one color I wanted in my size; a clerk noticed me rooting through a stack and offered to get one for me. He zipped up the stairs and returned with it a couple of minutes later. Every employee I came in contact with was extremely friendly and polite, not something you always expect to encounter in New York
, or for that matter, anywhere in retail these days (as a matter of fact, our dinner waiters both Friday and Saturday nights were extremely indifferent and indolent).

I imagine that Uniqlo will get around to opening a store in Boston eventually (it seems like an obvious market for them), but I don't want to speculate as to how long that will take. I heard recently that Zara, which is sort of Spain's equivalent of Banana Republic, will have a store in the old Filene's building (it seems funny to write that) when its redevelopment into a multi-use complex is finished two years from now. Maybe the developers should use that approach and go after other retailers who do not currently have a presence in the Northeast, and try to make Boston more of a shopping destination for people who don't get to New York with any frequency.

In the meantime, I will have to be content with shopping at Uniqlo when we visit New York, which means I'll have to try to visit New York more often, until they open a store here.

27 June 2007

City Scenes

Our weekend trip to New York was fun, but much too brief. A couple of days isn't nearly enough time to do more than a few things, and the Mrs. is one of those people who always wants to get an early start back, so things have to get wrapped up even earlier than I'd like.

One thing about this trip: the traffic was miserable. We left Boston at noon on Friday and hit a couple of minor slowdowns along the Pike, and some moderately thick stuff where 91 runs into 95 in New Haven. Things slowed down considerably when we got into southern Connecticut, then opened up again, then after we crossed the state line, traffic got slower and slower until we were crawling, and at 6 PM we hadn't even made it past Co-Op City yet. We decided to get off the highway, and using our one map of the area (which only showed selected streets) and some luck, we made our way through the Bronx to Third Avenue, which we were able to take across the Hudson and all the way downtown.

We didn't make it to our hotel, a block above Wall Street, until 8 PM. The trip usually takes us about four and a half hours. That's insane. But I don't think we've ever tried to drive into Manhattan on a Friday evening in the summer; we tend to go at odd times, like leaving Boston at the end of evening rush hour, or on Saturday morning, so I think we now know when not to go in the future. But we did have a very pleasant late dinner at the downtown location of Les Halles, Anthony Bourdain's bistro, which we found totally by accident while heading toward another theoretical food destination.

But the main reason we went was because very good, very old friends who live a thousand or so miles away were in the city on vacation. We've done several of these meetups over the years when they're visiting New York, and it's really good to have that time together, however brief. They've visited us here as well, and we've been to visit them, but the New York visits feel a little more special, regardless of what we do during that time.

On this particular Saturday afternoon we visited the roof garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The weather was perfect, the park was stretched out all around us, and the buildings embraced the park in the distance. We took pictures, but as our friend said, a picture doesn't quite do it justice. You just have to experience it for yourself.

P.S. For those who might be wondering (and since I mentioned it before we left), the dog did very well in our absence, which was a relief.

22 June 2007

Hitting the Road

The Mrs. and I are off to New York for the weekend. This is the first time both of us have gone away since we got the dog last summer, so it's kind of a big deal, for her and for us. One of our friends is dog-sitting, and hopefully London will behave for her.

20 June 2007

Office Goodies

Every Wednesday morning we have "bagel day" in my office. It's a chance for the staff to have a little break from work, to get together in an informal setting just to say hello and catch up with each other a little. The only real rule is that we have to talk about something other than work.

The responsibility for bringing the bagels and other treats rotates among the staff according to a list that's kept on the refrigerator. Someone is in charge of maintaining the list so that the bagel duties are distributed fairly and regularly among the roughly 25 people who work here.

Today's bagel day turned out to be "mountains of pastry and baked goods day": cinnamon rolls, rugelach, muffins, pound cake, even brownies. There were no bagels in sight, not that this was a problem for anyone, except that I've eaten enough sweet stuff for at least the next 36 hours. Lunch? Couldn't even think about it.

19 June 2007

Road Work Ahead

On Sunday we visited my dad for Father's Day. It got me thinking about some of our family history, vacations and such.

In August of 1972, when I was about to turn nine, we took a two-week road trip from Rhode Island to Florida and back. The centerpiece of this trip was a visit to Walt Disney World, which had just opened the previous fall. Our vacations were always car trips, because air travel was still prohibitively expensive for a working-class, single-income family of five, but also because my father enjoyed driving. Typically we went to Cape Cod or Lake Winnipesaukee, but this was the biggest trip we ever took, and as family vacations go, it was a really good one.

I don't mean to skip over the trip itself, but one of the reasons it stays with me is because of something that happened on the way home. We were approaching Washington, DC, and there was some major road construction going on. I'm pretty sure my dad was trying to find the Beltway in order to go around the city, but we ended up in the wrong lane and soon found ourselves on an off-ramp, heading for an unplanned detour into downtown DC. My parents weren't big on museums and cultural attractions, so the sights and sites of our national heritage weren't intended to be part of the trip.

We passed a few landmarks, including the Lincoln Memorial. I remember that one in particular because that's when my mom pointed out the window and said, "Oh Johnny, look, can't we just stop for a little while, since we're already here?" My dad's knuckles were white as he gripped the wheel, and he yelled, "Shut up! Shut up! I can find my way back to the highway if you'll all just shut up!" I would have been happy to stop, but I also knew better than to try to win that argument.

Yeah, good times. I didn't actually make it back to our nation's capital until almost 20 years later.

14 June 2007

Tree Service

I was just out running an errand at lunch, and I noticed that along Huntington Avenue in the vicinity of Mass. Art and the Harvard School of Public Health, work crews are planting trees. But that's not entirely accurate; they are in fact replacing the trees that are already there. I'm no arborist, but the trees that are being replaced look pretty healthy to me. Anyone know why this is being done?

12 June 2007

A Reunion, of Sorts

A few years back I worked for an e-commerce company. Like many others, its story didn't have a happy ending, but not in the usual way. It was a small company, with a staff of about fifteen. It had been acquired by a large tech company that made products that ran our products, so we had the resources of a large company with the atmosphere of a small company, a nearly ideal situation. We had loyal customers and we were making a profit.

About a year after I started there, the company was sold. The new owners were a humorless bunch of folks from a different part of the country, and I got the impression they didn't quite get us.
The CEO struck me as a singularly greedy individual. He was quite obsessed with making his company as big as possible as quickly as possible, and a few months after we were acquired, the new owners made a deal to merge with another company. At that point I think we all knew it wasn't going to be good for us.

The company we merged with had a lot of funding (one of the reasons they were attractive to the greedy CEO to merge with), but having the money meant they got to call the shots, and a couple of months later, we got word that the operations of all three companies were being consolidated at company X's offices in North Carolina. Oh, and they didn't need any of us down there, because they could hire people to do our jobs for roughly 75% of our salaries, due to the lower cost of living there. Not that I would have wanted to go anyway; I'm too entrenched here, and if I was going to choose to move away from Boston, it would be to Seattle, or Chicago, or San Francisco.

We had about two months between the time we got the news and when our office was shutting down. As the end grew closer, one of the programmers decided to have a "memorial barbecue" to mark the end. (Many of the employees had worked together at this company for several years before I got there.) He offered to host the event, everyone brought food, and it turned out to be a fun time in spite of the occasion. What's interesting is that we've kept up the tradition; on Sunday I went to the fourth annual memorial barbecue. Almost everyone was able to make it this year, which is pretty impressive.

Even though I only see these people once a year, it's nice to catch up and see what the others are doing now. Four of the programmers have managed to be working together again, one person is retired and spends winters cruising the country in an RV, one got his pilot's license, one is a consultant, one had a baby and is working part-time. I'm not going to say that working there was like being part of a family, but as workplaces go, it's in my personal top three, and it's nice to be able to maintain that connection.

08 June 2007

Smoked Out

I was waiting for the Orange Line at Downtown Crossing this afternoon. I walked to the northernmost end of the northbound platform, because when I get off the train at Wellington, the escalators are at that end of the platform, and it's just easier to already be at that end of the train. Yes, I know this is a compulsive personality thing, but when you have to run for a bus that comes only every 20 minutes, the 60 seconds you save walking from the back end of the train can make a difference between getting the bus and getting stuck waiting for the next one.

Anyway, I got to the far end of the platform, and there were a few other people waiting at that end. A minute later a youngish guy came along, went all the way to the wall, and lit a cigarette. This is something I cannot tolerate, not only for the health implications of secondhand smoke, but also because it's just such an incredibly rude and selfish thing to do when you're stuck in a confined space underground. I really don't care how bad your pathetic nicotine addiction is, don't put it in my face when I can't escape it. So while everyone stands around looking annoyed or pretending they don't notice, I'm the person who goes up to the smoker and asks them to put it out. I always do it politely, and the person almost always complies.

This guy looked at me, looked at his cigarette, and looked back at me and said, in utter seriousness, "What, there's not enough wind down here for you?" It's like he was thinking yeah, I know I'm doing something disgusting and obnoxious, but instead of admitting that you called me on it, I'm going to be as much of an asshole about it as possible.
In addition to people who have the nerve to smoke in T stations, I don't deal too well with defiance either, especially when it's coming from someone who is in the wrong and obviously knows it.

I probably should have taken a moment to compose my thoughts, to come up with some really good comeback, but I managed only, "The air down here is bad enough without your carcinogens adding to it." I know, what an idiot, right? I actually used the word "carcinogens." I'd blown it. He looked at me like I was from space, then I just gave up and moved away. It took another two or three minutes for the train to come, and somewhere during that time he either finished the cigarette or got rid of it, because when we got on the train he didn't have it. It's a good thing; I probably would have leaped on him and yanked it out of his hand at that point.

When I got off the train, I was sort of looking over my shoulder, because the smoking guy got off at the same stop. I worried that he would end up on my bus and would know which stop I got off at, but that's just a little paranoia resulting from having a minor confrontation with someone over their behavior. I thought to myself, I shouldn't even be in this kind of situation, but when someone behaves this way, I just can't help myself. Because if no one says anything, then the offender believes that it's somehow okay. And it's not. When I witness someone crossing the line of socially acceptable behavior, I can't ignore it. It's probably going to get me in trouble some day.

Money Trail Follow-Up

It's been a few days, I know. I was... (brace yourselves) reading a book. Not even an ebook, but a real, tangible, dead-tree book. I recommend it. Not just the specific book, which was Field of Blood by Denise Mina, but also the act of reading. Very relaxing. I hadn't been reading much other than the newspaper, and I realized that needed to change.

A few weeks ago I talked about awareness of where your money goes. Soon after I learned about a book called The Blue Pages that compiles information about companies' politics and practices. In addition to political contributions, the book lists what types of nondiscrimination policies a company has, whether or not they offer insurance to employees' domestic partners, and any legal actions they may be involved in (labor disputes, discrimination suits).

It's pretty interesting stuff, but at the same time it makes my head hurt a little. To give an example, in my previous post I made a reference to Home Depot executives' contributions to Republican organizations, and said that Lowe's looked like a better choice. I wanted to follow up on that, which is one of the reasons I got this book. Turns out that Lowe's is even worse than Home Depot: their executives contributed only to Republican organizations, compared to Home Depot's 17% Democrat/3% Republican split. Beyond that, Lowe's denies insurance coverage to its employees' domestic partners, whereas Home Depot offers it. So Home Depot in fact comes off as slightly less evil than Lowe's, and I stand corrected.

(Depending on what you need to buy, you may be better off going to your local Ace Hardware or True Value store. These are independently owned stores that are part of a larger network, so by shopping there, you're supporting a business in your community.)

There's a lot more of this sort of info in the book. Some of it is surprising, some of it isn't. One interesting bit: at the beginning of each section (clothing, food, home products, etc.) there is a list of the top ten donors to Republicans and Democrats. In many cases, the same companies are in the top ten on both lists, meaning they are splitting their contributions more or less equally. Infer from that what you will; the best option may be to spend your money with the companies that make no political contributions.

By the way, The Blue Pages costs only $9.95, so it's a worthy and painless investment. But don't buy it from Amazon: their execs lean Republican, and you should be supporting your local independent bookstore anyway.

03 June 2007

A Year in Medford

Friday marked a year since the Mrs. and I moved. After almost eleven years in the same apartment, we crossed the Mystic River from Somerville to Medford. We liked Somerville and still do, but we couldn't find what we needed and wanted there, and then its neighbor just to the north beckoned. This has turned out to be a very good decision in terms of our overall quality of life.

First, the residence itself is nicer. Not that the old place was shabby, but the new one has many more updated elements and features, mainly because the owners lived in this apartment for five years before deciding to rent it out because they needed more room. The slight reduction in living space is not a problem for us; it's actually easier to clean and take care of this place. The setting is more pleasant: we have a small back yard here, and there are trees all around. Before there were hardly any trees, and the house was surrounded by concrete and asphalt.

The new neighborhood is quieter and friendlier; we have met a number of people we see around semi-regularly. At the old place, I had a nodding acquaintance with only one person who was not a fellow tenant of our landlord, and there was a twelve-unit apartment building adjacent to us that regularly gave us noise problems.

But the biggest difference is that the landlord isn't looking out the window at us all the time. It was definitely like living in a fishbowl, along with the owner's passive-aggressive behavior and intrusive, privacy-ignorant attitude toward repairs and maintenance. Our current landlord now lives in New Hampshire, and I communicate with him mostly by email, a much more agreeable situation.

We also got our greyhound London last summer after moving, because the old place did not allow pets. While she is the most sensitive, neurotic, and high-maintenance dog I've ever met, we still love her dearly and regularly find ourselves laughing at her behavior.

Getting to and from work does take slightly longer, and there aren't as many amenities as close by as there were before, but these are minor tradeoffs that I have no problem accepting in exchange for the advantages we have gained. I could see us eventually buying a place in this neighborhood (something I couldn't say about our old one). Who knows if that will happen, but it's nice to imagine the possibility. It sure feels like home.